Watch Dogs 2
(Ubisoft for PS4)
By Mike Delano
All open world games are essentially giant playgrounds for your character to interact with and explore, but the best open world games understand that playgrounds are meant to be fun. The gritty streets of New York in Grand Theft Auto IV and Chicago in the original Watch Dogs were both impressive locales, but the dense layouts of those cities and the dark stories contained within made them the kind of places you didn’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time in. On the other hand, the sprawling, sun-soaked and varied terrain of Grand Theft Auto V‘s Los Angeles and Watch Dogs 2‘s San Francisco Bay Area truly feel like gigantic playgrounds, like miles-wide ball pits made for adults who just want to explore and play.
When you’re freewheeling around this Northern California landscape, Watch Dogs 2 is at its best. This region of the country is already beautiful, but the gorgeous in-game realization of it by the designers is bright and inviting and a big reason why you feel inspired to explore its ins and outs. You might be on your way to do something important, but you can’t resist the lure of a quick motorbike race or a treasure hunt for hidden money bags or the chance to hack a nearby player and steal their data. Side missions abound, and they’re almost always interesting, whether you’re screwing with people after hacking their ATM machine or listening to your passenger spout movie quotes as you drive him around in the game’s version of Uber.
Nothing beats just getting lost in the world and going where the spirit takes you, but the main story is no slouch. You play as hacker extraordinaire Marcus, who is recruited into hacker collective DeadSec where he helps them outwit their enemies, amass followers through outrageous stunts and expose nefarious corporations. The DeadSec crew provides plenty of eye-rolling moments (imagine if the creators of The Big Bang Theory decided to make a show about hackers), but their color-saturated design aesthetic — which pulses through the game and its menus like hyperactive graffiti — earns them some cool points. And the hijinx you get up to with them are consistently memorable, from assaulting a Scientology-style compound to reveal its secrets to a trippy journey to the desert. The freedom you have to approach each action scenario is impressive but not daunting: you can scout the scene using remote-controlled gadgets, hack into nearby devices and machinery to cause havoc, sneak around in stealth mode or try your luck going guns blazing. Since the game accommodates so many different play styles, each encounter feels fresh so long as you’re willing to use your imagination and experiment with the many options the game provides.
Watch Dogs 2 arrives at just the right time. Its generally sunny disposition is a nice contrast to the dark clouds that are forming outside in the real world, and its story of intrepid hackers exposing society’s lies is incredibly timely regardless of where you stand on this country’s current state of affairs. There’s plenty in the game that your brain can chew on if it’s looking for deeper meaning, but when it needs a break, don’t forget there’s a whole playground out there just waiting for a visitor.